Larry Kramer was an AIDS activist before there were AIDS activists.
Back in the early part of 1982 the acronym AIDS didn't exist yet, and the disease was known simply as Kaposi Sarcoma, what would describe those purple lesions on the skin of those with the infection. When it was found that the disease was spreading primarily among gay men it took on a handful of names including GRID, or gay related immune deficiency.
More informally it was “gay cancer.”
Forget marriage equality and adoption rights and all the cutsie, conservative things that gay people ask for now. In the early 80's the gay population was dying off as the United States government, hospitals, and the mainstream media shrugged. Of course it was awful, but they were gay men who brought it upon themselves.
The ivory tower was immune.
The Reagan Administration did nothing. They wouldn't even mention AIDS until September 1985. New York Mayor Ed Koch did nothing – refusing to meet with community members and spending only a few thousand dollars on the disease according to New York magazine.
While they sat on the sidelines, a handful of organizations were founded to figure out what the hell was going on.
On the West Coast, San Francisco saw the formation of The Kaposi Sarcoma Research and Education Foundation. In New York City Larry Kramer co-founded Gay Men's Health Crisis. GMHC worked within the community to promote awareness of the disease, offer crisis counseling and steer people towards resources.
Kramer grew frustrated that GMHC refused to be more political and he eventually formed ACT-UP – a more radical group designed to work outside the system with demonstrations demanding access to AIDS treatment, and more public education.
You can find any number of videos of them being arrested as they engaged in civil disobedience. Demonstrations that you could argue, lead to the eventual release of drugs that made the disease more manageable.
Kramer is very much a man who's legacy was shaped by the time in which he lived. Growing up, if could be said, that none of this was ever on his radar. He wanted to be a comedy writer. Before all the AIDS activism he wrote a best seller called Faggots about gay exploits, and was a young man enjoying his own exploits on Fire Island. He would go on to write a number of screenplays and enjoy a bit of celebrity related to his writings.
But if you know anything about Larry Kramer it's that he's also one tough son of a bitch. He's 80 years old, HIV positive himself, and last year he had a liver transplant. As someone who devoted a huge portion of his life to helping others live – this is someone who loves life more than anyone.
He's back in the public spotlight with his new book called The American People, and an HBO documentary called Larry Kramer In Love and Anger.
Larry Kramer: It's been a great day because I've gotten a lot of great reactions to the documentary last night about me on HBO. Also, the figures coming in from Amazon indicates the book is really selling well, so that pleases me a lot. I want every gay person to America to read this book.
Jesse Regis: We're talking just a few days after marriage equality came to all 50 states. What was your reaction?
LK: Well, it was of course wonderful. I didn't expect it would happen. I mean, I thought we were getting there but I didn't know it would happen. Now we need to move on because we have a lot of work that needs to has to be done in terms of consolidating our numbers and our growing power. The search for a cure for AIDS has got to be a top priority for a lot of us. I have discovered that the research at the NIH is not doing that. They are far behind when we thought it was much further advanced so I'm speaking a lot about that now.
JR: You're a very funny guy. Is it hard to be so serious all the time?
LK: [Laughs] Well, I guess because the media keeps asking me these serious questions. I think that I'm funny, I like to write funny. Did you read the book, is that why?
JR: I read a huge part of it. It takes a long time to read.
LK: It's a slow read. There is humor in it. I started out years ago wanting to be a comedy writer. You have to be patient with this book because I'm trying to tell a great many stories and history. Some people say there's no plot. The book is full of plot! So I know they're not careful readers. I'm glad you liked it.
JR: In the book you said that George Washington was gay, and Ben Franklin was gay, and Katherine Hepburn was gay, and all these great American figures were gay. How much of that is just you having fun, and how much of that is based on something?
LK: The book is a lot more than just outing a few people. It's not fantasy, I believe. Can you prove that all these people are straight if I say that they're gay? A historian writes what he sees. Unfortunately, most – all histories - of America are written by straight people. So, they don't have any sense of the things that a gay historian would see and say hey come on – red flags. So, I wanted to change all that.
JR: You're writing your own history, basically.
JR: The way it should have been!
LK: The way it should have been. Every writer has one history to tell.
JR: Does it ever bother you that gay history seems to start at the Stonewall Riots and nothing ever comes before that in the history books?
LK: It's interesting. The Puritans who landed on Plymouth Rock were called Puritans – it wasn't until years later that they were called pilgrims, or vice-versa. It's important for people to have some sort of metaphor even if it's a little blown up. I think that Stonewall has been blown up into this great myth, but it was an important happening. Better that than nothing.
JR: You have been a controversial figure. As you've gotten older do you still feel like you're as controversial? Do you still feel like you have a target on your back?
LK: [Laughs] I don't think I'm controversial at all! I'm just as angry about the things that make me angry. Fortunately, I've come back from the near dead to have energy and a brain and a voice – cracked though it may be – and I get energy from my anger. I think anger is a wonderfully creative emotion if you know how to use it right.
JR: You're in the spotlight again. You've put out the documentary and you got the book. What brings you out again? Why are you doing it this time? You're a wealthy man, you've accomplished a lot why not go to Boca Raton and call it a day?
LK: Oh, boy. I'm not a wealthy man. I was a wealthy man. Unfortunately, I lost a lot of money in the last crash as did a lot of people.
JR: I won't ask you for any money then.
LK: [Laughs] Right. I never stopped doing what I'm doing. If you haven't heard of what I've been doing it was because I was writing and I spent a year or so in the hospital, which put me out of commission for a while. Now, I'm writing like crazy.
JR: You still got your ACT-UP hat on. It doesn't seem like you're going anywhere.
LK: I'm not going anywhere, I hope.
JR: What's next for you?
LK: I have to write a piece for Towleroad, which I promised about the mess in Washington, which I'm going to release on July 3rd, which is the 34th anniversary since that New York Times article that announced the beginning of our plaque. I have still to polish up volume two of The American People, and I'm waiting to hear from HBO and Ryan Murphy about when we're going to start the sequel to the film version of The Normal Heart because the original one was such a huge success for them, which is great. I've written a first draft and I'm waiting to proceed, so there's plenty on my plate.
McNally Jackson Books, New York, NY
Originally aired July 2014 on BBOX Radio, Brooklyn, NY.
Interview edited for length and clarity. All rights reserved.